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Remembering Natalia

By Lucy Ash
BBC Radio 4, Crossing Continents

Natalia Estemirova, murdered this week, was Chechnya's foremost defender of human rights and an exceptionally brave woman, as I discovered on a recent visit to the capital Grozny, where I had come to investigate a string of abductions, unexplained disappearances and murders of women.

Natalia Estemirova and Lucy Ash
Natalia Estemirova (l): Determined, brave and dedicated

The desolate field was on the edge of town next to a disused factory. I heard crows and distant traffic as we walked along in the dusk, marshland on either side.

"One of the women was wearing red boots," said Natalia. "There was very little grass in winter so you could spot her a mile off."

My companion was a tall, determined-looking woman, who took big strides and talked at a rate of knots. Unlike most women in Grozny these days she wore no headscarf.

CROSSING CONTINENTS
Lucy Ash won the News Special Gold Award at the 2010 Sony Radio Academy Awards for her report investigating a string of murders of Chechen women.

Natalia was head of the Grozny branch of Memorial, the organisation that campaigns for human rights across Russia.

She had brought me to this dreary suburb to see the place where three women's bodies were found one day last November.

The morning after that gruesome discovery, four more dead women were discovered around the Chechen capital.

All seven had been shot in the head with an automatic weapon.

As we stood shivering in the dying light, I never dreamt that three weeks later Natalia, herself, would suffer a similar fate.

On Wednesday she was bundled into a van as she left her home. Her body was found later the same day in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, with multiple bullet wounds.

There is little doubt in Chechnya that her killing was connected to her investigative and campaigning work - including the case of the seven murdered women.

Warning

Back in November, the chief investigator in Grozny suggested they were victims of so-called honour killings.

"Unfortunately, some of our young women have forgotten the mountain woman's code of behaviour," he said. "Their male relatives feel they have been insulted and sometimes take the law into their own hands."

Natalia dismissed that theory. So did the brother of one of the victims.

Somebody clearly wanted to make a point. So this was meant as a warning
Natalia Estemirova

He told me that two of the women had last been seen being driven off in a van by men in paramilitary uniforms. Masked men with guns were also spotted several times outside the home of another of the dead women.

Natalia told me she thought that at least one of the victims had links to brothels frequented by paramilitary groups.

She said one of the women was friendly with men who worked for a commander of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov's security apparatus. The commander was later assassinated in Moscow.

Whether criminals, rogue policemen or soldiers killed the seven women is unclear. But Natalia was adamant that the deaths could not be blamed on the women's families.

"Usually these murders inside the family are hushed up. That's not just to avoid problems with the law, it is a crime after all, but also to protect the reputation of other sisters, nieces and cousins," she said.

The bodies of women killed by relatives, she explained, would usually be buried deep inside the forest, not put on display near busy main roads.

"Somebody clearly wanted to make a point. So this was meant as a warning."

'So much work'

Natalia was unusually outspoken by the standards of Grozny. Few people were willing to go on the record about the crimes I was investigating - even anonymously.

Much of Natalia's work concerned unexplained disappearances. According to officials there are currently 5,000 people missing in Chechnya - but the real number could be much higher.

On the couple of occasions that I visited Natalia's Memorial office, it was filled with people patiently waiting their turn, all clutching tattered documents - all with the same desperate look in their eyes.

Natalia Estemirova
Will any one take over Natalia's work?

"I'll be lucky if I get out of here before 10 o'clock," said Natalia, her face grey with exhaustion.

"I've been away in Moscow for a while and there is so much work to do."

When I asked the Russian Federation's representative in Grozny, Suleiman Vagapov, whether he was concerned about the number of armed people in the streets and the apparent climate of impunity, he looked exasperated.

He spoke of the "colossal changes" in the republic and the remarkably swift reconstruction of the bomb-shattered capital. He suggested that I had come looking for negative stories because the West is "always seeking to sow instability in the Caucasus."

He assured me that Chechnya was now just a normal part of the Russian Federation.

Like many journalists, I have reported on the risks taken by human rights activists. But to write about Natalia's death, so soon after getting to know her is a baleful task indeed.


Crossing Continents: Chechnya is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 16 July 2009 at 1100 BST and repeated on Monday, 20 July at 2030 BST.

You can also listen to Crossing Continents on the BBC iPlayer or subscribe to the podcast .



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